I’ve updated my previous posts on the medical geographies of Gaza several times (see here, here and here), and I’ve drawn on the testimony of Dr Mads Gilbert in extenso, but this testimony from another brave volunteer doctor deserves its own notice.
I met Ghassan Abu Sitta at a wonderful workshop in Paris in December 2012 on War and Medicine, and I learned so much from that one meeting (from everyone there: see my note about War and therapeutic geographies) that I was inspired to develop my own research project on the medical evacuation of casualties from war zones, 1914-2014.
Ghassan is a reconstructive surgeon who used to work at Great Ormond Street in London but is now based in Beirut. He’s recently returned from Gaza where he worked as a Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) volunteer at al Shifa hospital carrying out five, six and sometimes seven surgeries a day.
You can read some of the background in this excellent report by Robert Tait for Britain’s Telegraph, published ten days ago and from which I’ve borrowed the photograph above, but Ghassan has just been interviewed in depth by Yazan al-Saadi for Al Akhbar; you can read the full version here.
Ghassan says the attack on Gaza was like ‘a meat-grinder’, which he attributes to:
The amount of ordinance that the Israelis fired, the indiscriminate use of these bombs that are capable of bringing down whole buildings, the use of artillery shelling which is indiscriminate because the shell will hit the first thing it reaches, the fact that they were attacking from the air, from the sea, and by land with artillery at the same time. And there was a night they were doing this and then they lit all of Gaza’s sky with these flares just so people will know that this is what’s happening.
He also provides compelling testimony of his experience at al-Shifa, the main trauma centre for Gaza, that adds important detail to the accounts I’ve noted previously:
‘It looked like a refugee camp. The campus of the hospital has a lot of the families that escaped the bombing or lost their houses and they were living inside the walls of the hospital. Everywhere you go you see makeshift dwellings made out of laundry lines and bed sheeting turned into tents. And the hospital was completely full. Single rooms had four beds in them. In some wards we had two patients per bed.
‘The difference between this conflict and the one before is that nobody was allowing the patients out. So you had 7,000 injured – at the time I was there it was 6,000 and by the time the conflict ended the injured were 10,000. An overwhelming majority have still not been able to get out of Gaza. There have been some numbers, but not significant numbers to break the back of this problem….
‘The contingency plans were that all diesel was kept for the al-Shifa Hospital, so people did not have electricity at home, they would donate the diesel to the hospital. The wells that supply Shifa, like the rest of the water in Gaza, had become so contaminated with sea water, it’s salty. People do the best with what they have….
‘… the majority of the killing was happening because they were dropping ammunition designed to penetrate mountain caves. [The Israelis] were dropping them on civilian dwellings made out of breeze block. And so these four or five storey buildings were being pulverized by these one-ton bombs. That was what was wiping out whole families. And in Gaza, because land is so much in shortage, people come along and build their house, they build enough foundations that when their kids grow up, they can build a floor on top. So when you take out a four storey building, you take out four generations of a family. That was what happened to, I think, 60 families that have been completely wiped out…
The graphic below shows 26 members of just one extended family, the Abu Jame family, killed at home in Bani Suheila on 20 July; it comes from a sequence that is shockingly far too large to reproduce here, compiled by B’Tselem and available here. The infographic lists ‘members of families killed in their homes in 59 incidents of bombing or shelling’ in which 458 people were killed, including 108 women under the age of 60, 214 minors, and 18 people over the age of 60. If you follow the link, you can hover over each image for the names and ages of those killed.
‘… they started inventing these humanitarian ceasefires, where people would go out and they would start killing them. We had this on the day of Eid, they said there was a humanitarian ceasefire and the kids went out to a local fair ground and they bombed them. The other time was in al-Shujayeh market, there was a humanitarian ceasefire, they got them into the market, they killed them, then they waited for the ambulances to get there, and then they shelled the ambulances again.
‘So the issue isn’t the type of weapons, but the intent to kill. The amount of ordinance they used and the tonnage of the bombs they used were intended to wipe out whole neighborhoods. That’s what they have done. They have completely wiped out Shejayeh, they wiped out Khuza’a, they wiped out a big part of Rafah, a big part of Khan Younes, and parts of Beit Hanoun….
‘ All the areas around the hospital were being bombed all the time. You would hear it. We heard something we knew it was close, but didn’t know how close it was. We then got a call to the emergency room and we were told that the administration and the out patients building had been hit – a lot of families had taken refuge in that area – so we had to go and help.’
Asked directly whether Hamas or other factions were firing rockets from the vicinity of the hospital, Ghassan is unequivocal:
‘Around Shifa? No, no, no. But in other places you would see them in the sky or hear them. You would learn to distinguish the whoosh of the rocket. Gaza is so small and so flat, I mean you are not going to hide them in the mountains or the jungle because there are no mountains or jungle. People are literally on top of each other. It’s going to happen. But around the hospital there were none.’